When the Emperor was Divine

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Themes and Colors
Racism Theme Icon
The Model Minority  Theme Icon
Imprisonment and Freedom  Theme Icon
Social Class and the American Dream Theme Icon
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon
Inscrutability and the Unknown  Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in When the Emperor was Divine, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Assimilation and Loss of Identity  Theme Icon

Typically, assimilation refers to a group of people with their own heritage, traditions, and values adopting the culture of another group. But rather than the mingling of two cultural identities, When the Emperor was Divine depicts Japanese-American assimilation as more like the gradual loss of one’s identity altogether.

Before the war, the family’s home was full of the markers of their assimilated, Westernized life (a grand piano, a framed picture of a classic Western artwork, a baseball glove) and also of their Japanese heritage (a bonsai tree, pictures of a family member in Japanese military regalia, a Japanese flag). Containing a multiplicity of cultural objects, their home illustrates the possibility of the coexistence of Japanese and American cultural identities. In this home, the characters do not need to sacrifice one side of their identity in order to conform to the other.

This coexistence does not last, however. As soon as the government detains her husband under suspicion of being a spy, the woman destroys all the cultural links to Japan in their home. The war with Japan causes the family to give up their Japanese heritage in order to demonstrate their sole loyalty to the American side of their identities. As a result, assimilation causes them to eradicate a crucial part of their selves—and even this doesn’t save them from internment.

This loss of identity also occurs on a more personal level. Internment causes the woman to become a shell of her former self—she either spends hours in total silence or sleeps away her days. In the camp, she loses the strength that marked her personality in the first chapter. The children are more resilient, holding onto their identities for longer, although they too eventually succumb. The girl, who never showed much of a connection to Japanese cultural identity, holds onto her assimilated American identity. She appears to go through the normal stages of growing up: distancing herself from her family, spending more time with friends, and testing social boundaries. In contrast, the boy tries to keep his Japanese heritage. At one point, the boy mutters the name of the Emperor under his breath when passing the guard tower as an act of personal resistance against giving up his Japanese identity.

But after the war, the children, like their mother, begin to lose their cultural identities and even their unique personalities. For fear of returning to the camps, the children conform completely to assimilated norms. They follow all the rules and avoid sticking out. Otsuka formally illustrates this conformity and lack of identity by writing the second to last chapter through the shared perspective of both children. Though the boy and girl were previously very distinct characters, Otsuka writes this chapter with the pronoun “we” to show that the two children have become essentially interchangeable, a unit of two personalities that are no different from one another. Internment and this fearful kind of assimilation, therefore, rob them of everything that made them complex and nuanced human beings.

The novel concludes with the father, who likewise loses his original identity. After his detainment he is no longer kind and easygoing as he was before—he becomes an angry man who slips deeper and deeper into his interior world, eventually barely speaking to his family. By the end of the novel, he is a ghost of his former self, an empty void in the family. The novel thus illustrates how the horrors of institutionalized racism and oppression can cause a complete loss of identity, as being dehumanized by others for so long eventually makes one dehumanize one’s own self.

Assimilation and Loss of Identity ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Assimilation and Loss of Identity appears in each chapter of When the Emperor was Divine. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Assimilation and Loss of Identity Quotes in When the Emperor was Divine

Below you will find the important quotes in When the Emperor was Divine related to the theme of Assimilation and Loss of Identity .
Chapter 1 Quotes

White Dog rolled over and looked up at her with his good eye. “Play dead,” she said. White Dog turned his head to the side and closed his eyes. His paws went limp. The woman picked up the large shovel that was leaning against the trunk of the tree. She lifted it high in the air with both hands and brought the blade down swiftly over his head…She picked up White dog and dropped him into the hole…She pulled off her gloves and looked at them. They were no longer white. She dropped them into the hole and picked up the shovel again. She filled the hole.

Related Characters: The Woman
Related Symbols: Wild and Domesticated Animals
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

In this shocking passage, the Woman kills her beloved dog because she won't be able to take care of it, and doesn't want it to starve: she's being taken off to a camp, and she's not bringing any pets with her. The passage is symbolically loaded: the Woman's killing is the first potentially immoral action we've seen her take in the novel--as if to symbolize her moral compromises, her gloves are no longer pure and white. Furthermore, the passage could be said to symbolize the way the American government turned on its own people: like the Woman turning on her dog, the Roosevelt administration turned on its loyal Japanese citizens and imprisoned them.


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She was ten years old and she knew what she liked. Boys and black licorice and Dorothy Lamour. Her favorite song on the radio was “Don’t Fence Me in.”

Related Characters: The Girl
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

The narrator emphasizes the total normalcy and "Americanness" of the characters in the novel: here, we're introduced to the Girl, who's totally innocent, but has the misfortune of being Japanese. The Girl loves all-American things, and couldn't possibly be considered a danger to anyone: and yet because of the Roosevelt administration's internment policy, she's sent to live in a camp with her parents.

The narrator's anger is palpable in the dark sarcasm of this passage. "How is it possible," Otsuka seems to ask, "that she could be sent to a camp? What danger could she possibly pose?" And while the girl's "Americanness" is presented as an example of just how far-fetched the racist suspicions of Japanese Americans were, it also shows how fully she has assimilated--she feels little to no connection to the Japanese culture of her parents.

Chapter 2 Quotes

All summer long they had lived in the old horse stalls in the stables behind the racetrack. In the morning they had washed their faces in the long tin troughs and at night they had slept on mattresses stuffed with straw…On their first night there her brother had plucked the stiff horse hairs out of the freshly white-washed walls and run his fingers along the toothmarks on top of the double Dutch door where the wood was soft and worn.

Related Characters: The Girl, The Boy
Related Symbols: Wild and Domesticated Animals
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Japanese-American families are herded into horse stables and treated like animals. They're forced to sleep and live in the same quarters that used to house horses--moreover, the younger Japanese-Americans see evidence of the link between their own lives and those of the horses, as here, the Boy sees the bite marks that the horses have made in the wooden doors of the stables.

The passage underscores the dehumanizing effects of the Japanese Internment program. The Japanese families who were imprisoned during World War Two had committed no crime, and many of them were proud Americans. And yet they were treated like dangerous criminals, and imprisoned for their potential disloyalty to America. In the process, the Japanese came to see that their government didn't think of them as people at all--just dangerous animals.

In the middle of the aisle a young girl of five or six was playing with a dirty doll on the floor. The doll had curly yellow hair and big china eyes that opened and closed.
“What’s your doll’s name?”
“Miss Shirley.” The young girl held the doll up shyly. “Mama bought her for me from the Sears catalog.”
“She’s beautiful.”
“You can’t have her.”
“That’s all right.” The girl continued down the aisle.

Related Characters: The Girl (speaker)
Page Number: 35
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, a young Japanese girl sees another girl playing with a doll. The doll depicts a beautiful American girl (seemingly named after Shirley Temple, a cute American child-star of the period).

The passage underscores how assimilated many of the Japanese-Americans in the camp became in the years leading up to their interment--which makes the fact that they've been sent to the camp all the more absurd. The passage also shows young people internalizing Western beauty standards: because they're surrounded by American dolls ordered at American department stores, they're subtly taught that whiteness equals beauty, and their aesthetic standards are based on blonde hair and blue eyes--leading to internalized inferiority complexes for those who don't fit into such categories.

Chapter 3 Quotes

For it was true, they all looked alike. Black hair. Slanted eyes. High cheekbones. Thick glasses. Thin lips. Bad teeth. Unknowable. Inscrutable.

Related Characters: The Boy
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy arrives at the internment camp and immediately notices a long row of Japanese prisoners. The Japanese-American camp residents are all American citizens, but to the Boy, they all look exactly the same. It's hard to know how to interpret this observation. One could certainly argue that the Boy has internalized some of the racist ideas of his society--the old, offensive stereotype that all Asians look alike, and are somehow "inscrutable" (part of the reason why the Japanese Americans were imprisoned in the first place--the government felt it couldn't trust or understand them). One could also say that the Boy is responding to the dehumanizing effects of the internment program: the proud Japanese Americans have been dehumanized by their internment, and in the process they've lost some of their individuality and personality.

Whenever the boy walked past the shadow of a guard tower he pulled his cap down low over his head and tried not to say the word. But sometimes it slipped out anyway, Hirohito, Hirohito, Hirohito. He said it quietly. Quickly. He whispered it.

Related Characters: The Boy , Emperor Hirohito
Related Symbols: The Japanese Emperor
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy passes by some of the American guards who run the camp--he's walking by the huge guard tower that looks down on the Japanese-American camp residents. In spite of the fact that he's so close to Americans, the Boy mutters the name "Hirohito" to himself--the name of the Japanese Emperor, considered a divine presence. Hirohito was the Emperor during World War II, and he was popular even among Japanese-Americans. Thus, for the Boy to mutter Hirohito's name is a quiet act of rebellion: he's naming the spiritual leader of America's enemy, and he's showing his allegiance with Japanese culture. The Boy is frightened of the guards, but he finds tiny ways to rebel against their authority and retain his dignity and culture in an environment of racism and dehumanization.

In the dream there was always a beautiful wooden door. The beautiful wooden door was very small—the size of a pillow, say, or an encyclopedia. Behind the small but beautiful wooden door there was a second door, and behind the second door there was a picture of the Emperor, which no one was allowed to see. For the Emperor was holy and divine. A god.

Related Characters: The Boy , Emperor Hirohito
Related Symbols: The Japanese Emperor
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy has a recurring dream about the Emperor of Japan, Hirohito. Hirohito is a clear symbol of the Boy's Japanese heritage, in all its strengths and weaknesses. The fact that the Boy can only access his Japanese heritage in dreams is a sad reminder of his present situation: he lives in camps where Japanese culture of any kind is frowned upon and even considered treacherous.

The Boy's dreams suggest that he acutely feels the struggle between his American citizenship and his Japanese heritage. Americans have thrown him in a camp under the delusion that he's a danger to the country, and yet the Boy is clearly pretty ignorant of Japanese culture; he has only the vaguest idea who the Emperor is or what he symbolizes (if the Boy knew a little more about Hirohito's life, he might not like him so much). In short, the passage sums up the ironies of the internment program: the American soldiers were guarding the Japanese people who were least likely to feel any strong connection with Japan, or be traitorous to America in any substantive way.

“I lost an earring on the train. Did I ever tell you that?”
He shook his head…
“What did it look like?”
“It looked like a pearl,” she said. “It was a pearl.”
“Maybe it rolled behind the seat.”
“Or maybe,” she said, “it’s just gone. Sometimes things disappear and there’s not getting the back. That’s just how it is…I had no business wearing those earrings in the first place,” she said after a while. “No business at all.”

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Boy (speaker)
Page Number: 85-86
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Mother remembers losing a beautiful pearl earring on the train to the camp. The Mother brings it up to the Boy, but immediately she comes to a cynical acceptance: she's lost the earring and she's not getting it back. The Mother's next choice of words is interesting: she claims that she has "no business" wearing earrings at all.

The passage could be said to symbolize the loss of Japanese identity and pride in the course of the internment program. The Mother loses her pearl earring (in Japan, pearl is a highly prized form of jewelry, and it's not unreasonable to guess that the Mother's pearl earrings came from her old life in Japan, not her new life in America). Just as the Mother loses her earring, she loses her contact with Japanese culture and heritage--she's lost it and she's (seemingly) never getting it back. Furthermore, the Woman has now internalized the racist idea that she herself is somehow dangerous or "wrong," and so she feels that she had "no business" showing off or making herself stand out in any way by wearing pearl earrings. The camps have robbed her not only of a connection to Japanese culture, but also of her own pride as an American and a human being.

She’d been in America for almost twenty years now. But she did not want to cause any trouble—“The nail that sticks up gets hammered down”—or be labeled disloyal. She did not want to be sent back to Japan. “There’s no future for us there. We’re here. Your father’s here. The most important thing is that we stay together.”…
Loyalty. Disloyalty. Allegiance. Obedience.
“Words,” she said, “it’s all just words.”

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Boy , The Man / The Father
Page Number: 99
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Woman makes a difficult choice. The army has come to the internment camps and asked for "volunteers" to join the military. there's a pretty clear program of coercion going on here (as evidenced by the fact that men who refuse to join the armed forces are sent to a different, presumably harsher camp), and so the Mother is understandably frightened that something bad will happen if she doesn't agree to the loyalty pledge.

In the end, the Mother agrees to pledge her loyalty to the U.S., because she thinks that her pledge is meaningless. She isn't particularly interested in the abstract notions of allegiance or obedience to U.S. authority--her real priority is her children, and therefore she'll do whatever she needs to do to stay with them, even if this means compromising her ideals and "keeping her head down."

He traced out an SOS in huge letters across the firebreak but before anyone could read what he had written he wiped the letters away.

Related Characters: The Boy
Page Number: 103
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy traces an SOS in the ground, having heard that prisoners and castaway will sometimes do so in an effort to be rescued by passing airplanes. Of course, the Boy realizes his mistake: no airplanes are going to rescue the Japanese-Americans--they've been confined to the internment camps on the orders of the President himself.

The passage could also be taken more symbolically: an echo of the scene earlier in the novel in which the Boy writes his name in the dust. The Boy is beginning to realize that no external forces are going to save him from his depression or loneliness--he's going to have to take care of himself. Thus, the passage is a sign of both the Boy's growing maturity and the danger of him losing his sense of self, both changes precipitated by the internment process.

Chapter 4 Quotes

We put down our things and ran from one room to the next shouting, “Fire! Help! Wolf!” simply because we could.

Related Characters: The Girl, The Boy
Page Number: 109
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the family returns from the internment camp to the house where they used to live. Predictably, the house has fallen into disrepair—it’s full of trash and broken bottles, and has been vandalized with racist slurs. While the Japanese internment program was initiated for supposedly noble reasons—the protection of American citizens—its most tangible result is far more vulgar: the robbery and vandalism of Japanese-American houses.

The children have a fascinating reaction when they realize their house was robbed: they run through the halls screaming about the damage. It’s as if the children have been forced to keep silent about their problems for so long (who could they complain to when the American soldiers forced them to leave their homes?) that it’s satisfying just to yell things that are usually forbidden (like crying "fire" when there is no fire).

Nothing’s changed, we said to ourselves. The war had been an interruption, nothing more. We would pick up our lives where we had left off and go on. We would go back to school again. We would study hard, every day, to make up for lost time. We would seek out old classmates…We would listen to their music. We would dress just like they did. We would change our names to sound more like theirs. And if our mother called out to us on the street by our real names we would turn away and pretend not to know her. We would never be mistaken for the enemy again!

Related Characters: The Girl, The Boy
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chilling passage, the children of the Woman return to their old lives—and they find that little has changed: the radio programs are the same, their food is the same, their street is the same, etc. The children are young enough to think that their lives can go on, exactly as they had before the war, without any further problems, as long as they try to deny their Japanese heritage and fit in with their white peers.

Of course, there is a very dark undercurrent to the false optimism of this passage. The Japanese-American community has come to see how fragile its place in the U.S. really is: at the drop of a hat, the President can sign an executive order and pull the people away from their houses. Granted, many Japanese-American families returned to their old lives after being released from the camps, and found prosperity and acceptance within the American mainstream. But this passage suggests that they partly were so desperate for American success because of a desire to avoid being interned again. They believed (whether consciously or not) that if they kept their heads down, didn't make trouble or demand justice, and succeeded in school and work (i.e., became the "model minority" of America) they’d never be "mistaken for the enemy again." This shows how the very idea of the "model minority" is flawed and racist, and the result of an internalized "imprisonment" (suppressing one's culture and true desires out of fear) that is just another incarnation of the literal imprisonment of the internment camps.

And when our mother pushed us gently, but firmly, from behind, and whispered, Go to him, all we could do was stare down at our shoes, unable to move. Because the man who stood there before us was not our father. He was somebody else, a stranger who had been sent back in our father’s place. That’s not him, we said to our mother, That’s not him, but our mother no longer seemed to hear us…He got down on his knees and he took us into his arms and over and over again, he uttered our names, but still we could not be sure it was him.

Related Characters: The Woman (speaker), The Girl (speaker), The Boy (speaker), The Man / The Father
Page Number: 131-132
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Boy and Girl reunite with their Father. Yet when they see him, he’s been so utterly transformed by his experiences (experiences which we’ve yet to hear about) that his children can’t even tell who he is. Although the passage is narrated from the perspective of the Girl and the Boy, it’s the Mother and Father who bear the real burden of sadness: when the children say they can’t even recognize their own father, it’s a safe guess that both parents feel crushed. Furthermore, the Father's strangeness to his children suggests that he has become just as "inscrutable" as the other male Japanese prisoners, those whom the Boy long ago felt "all looked the same." His role as a dehumanized prisoner has actually robbed him of his identity and individuality.

The passage is a tragic refutation of the idea that the Japanese-American families will be able to “go back to normal” after internment, as the Boy and Girl childishly tried to believe. In fact, internment has changed family so utterly that normality will never be possible again. (The passage is also a good example of the way that internment has wiped out Japanese heritage in the young generation of Japanese-American children: the young Boy and Girl feel little to no connection to their “father land,” as symbolized by their confusion when facing their own father.)

Chapter 5 Quotes

I spied on you—you get up at six, you like bacon and eggs, you love baseball, you take your coffee with cream, your favorite color is blue.

Related Characters: The Man / The Father (speaker)
Page Number: 141
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Man sarcastically confesses to his supposed “crimes.” He claims that he planted dynamite on train tracks, sabotaged the American war effort, etc. He adds that he’s been spying on Americans—watching them take their coffee, watch baseball, and so on. The truth, of course, is that the Man has done nothing of the kind: he’s just a regular American citizen who’s being scapegoated by the racist, intolerant American society of the 1940s.

The novel has used sarcasm and irony to make a point before, but never as bitterly as in this closing chapter. The Man knows he’s done nothing wrong: he’s lashing out in impotent rage against the powerful American officials who’ve arranged for him to be detained. More subtly, the passage implies that in being detained by American officials for his supposedly un-American behavior, the Man has actually become more anti-American: he’s come to resent the Americans who’ve stripped him of his rights, and now hates American culture, too (baseball, bacon and eggs, etc.).